I was wending my way through the parking lot of a big-box store not long ago. A large, smoke-belching, unmuffled truck with the kind of mammoth tires one sees at demolition derbies hurtled into the lot and careened into a parking space some yards away. The sides of the truck were plastered with enormous political advertisements. “Make America Great Again,” the Trump banners read. (As the cloth furled and snapped and fluttered in the wind, however, it was “RUMP” and “RUM” whose guidance promised a return to gloryland.) The whole effect was bigger and more eye-catching than a float in a parade. The sight of it! The sound! Whether in approval or disapprobation, the entire geography of the parking lot reacted as one. Heads swiveled, eyes widened, mouths gaped.
The driver lumbered from his cab, sporting a long white beard stretching nearly to his navel. “What’re you staring at?” he snarled at a thunderstruck man of seemingly Asian phenotype, who was frozen in the act of unloading his groceries.
In many ways, this encounter was itself a pantomime of Donald Trump’s candidacy: unusual hair, dramatic arrival in clouds of smoke, spectacular parking job smack-dab on center stage—and then, with all eyes captured, the peevishly threatening demand not to be looked at so closely. Trump is the gilded monster truck of political ambition.
The scenario was also an enactment of Trump’s favorite precept: giving the finger to “political correctness” in the name of freedom of expression. I have the right to belch smoke in your face, call you a rapist or a murderer, and spatter you with mud. Now what’re you gonna do about it—cry like a baby? Freedom of expression is reduced to an arbitrary insistence upon one-way communication, a barked order. Making America “great again,” by this measure, is a command, not a hope. Get that crying baby out of the tent; move out of the way already.
This epitomizes one of the most tiresome assumptions that are insinuated into debates about freedom of expression: My right to call you a stupid monkey means that you have to shut up about it. If you don’t, you’re violating my free-speech rights.
This assumption—the belief that communication flows in one direction only, that it is the role of some to speak and others only to listen—is a paradox that stifles rather than encourages debate. “Get ’em outta here!” is literally the Trumpian cliché, tossed impatiently at any hint of dissent. This much is bad enough in a comic-book villain. But in an aspiring state actor, we must seriously consider the repercussions should he, as president, be endowed with the actual, not academic, executive power to censor.
Perhaps one reason Trump has been able to get away with being so absurdly vague, vulgar, and uninformed is that he has positioned himself squarely as a culture warrior, not as a politician. The culture wars aren’t about the specifics of foreign policy or climate change or budget concerns. They are waged as performative skirmishes—symbolic, visual, and visceral. In one corner are the send-ups of campus eggheads supposedly surrendering Western civilization to the people who “don’t belong”: bleeding women with “fat faces,” unruly affirmative-action minorities, LGBTQ victimologists, job-stealing Asians, and a mushily defined remainder of soft equivocators and kale-eating “liberals.” In the other corner are the tough guys, the red-meat-eaters, real men who live in a “real world” of no rules but ruthlessness: plain-speaking, strong-jawed, put-up-or-shut-up cowboy entrepreneurs, unafraid to get their hands a little dirty in the service of building beautiful walls around the beautiful empire, the beautiful castle, and their bevy of beautiful ladies in skintight dresses.
For more than 20 years—thanks in no small part to the outsize influence of Trump surrogates and influential fear mongers like Roger Ailes, Ralph Reed, Andrew Breitbart, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Steve Bannon—the two sides have hardened. There is no middle ground.
The arrival of a female candidate has seen a turn to scorched-earth tactics. “Girly-men!” said Arnold Schwarzenegger of his Democratic rivals back in 2004. It led to a stream of similarly misogynistic Republican invective, effectively setting the stage for Trump’s performative attacks on Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t even have to put it in words at this point, because she has been reduced at every turn to a physically unhealthy yet nut-crackingly strong, pantsuit-wearing, man-hating closet lesbian, a castrating and shrewish fish without a bicycle.
There are no words that Hillary can ever speak to change this caricature. Endless invocation of the First Amendment notwithstanding, these constructions play less upon the right to speak than upon how things are said. Thus, Trump’s talent for passionate spectacle vaulted him through the initial debates, largely because he wasn’t really debating. Instead, he’s been signifying in a wordless contest of manners, mores, images, accent, etiquette, and idiom.
Once we’ve been lured onto this emotionally charged field of rational bypass, words stop working.
And though we have plenty of words to describe the “coddling” of college students who seek “safe spaces” in campus settings, we have fewer popular terms to describe Trump’s bid to make the entire United States a walled-off “safe space” from global exchange. We hear a lot about who is “silencing” whom whenever those effervescent Code Pink ladies pop up, faithful as flamenco-pink-wigged whack-a-moles, to be dragged from Trump rallies. Much less is spoken about the chilling effect of campus open-carry laws in classrooms where the expressive power of the First Amendment and the Second seem to have become perilously confused.
So… what’re you staring at?
Patricia J. Williams is the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and a columnist for The Nation.
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